Was Frank Zappa, the memorably mustachioed musician who died in 1993 of prostate cancer, rock and roll's answer to Herman Melville? Maybe so, and not just because the Moby-Dick scribe sported some pretty odd facial hair.
Writing about Melville and other American Renaissance writers, Lionel Trilling argued in The Liberal Imagination that our culture is "dialectic" and that our most representative figures "contain a large part of the dialectic within themselves, their meaning and power lying in their contradictions."
Trilling could have been talking about Zappa, who started his career in the mid-1960s as the leader of the Mothers of Invention, one of the first great hippie–or, in the argot of the psychedelic Los Angeles where they were based, freak–bands. Zappa's records never sold especially well, yet he was influential and visible as a cult act and, especially late in his career, as an advocate for free expression. In the mid-'80s, he delivered memorable congressional testimony attacking record labeling schemes proposed by the Parents Music Resource Center, the group founded by Tipper Gore and others interested in policing offensive lyrics in pop music.
In 1990 Vaclav Havel feted him in the newly liberated Czechoslovakia as a hero of freedom; a Zappa tune had given the Czech dissident band the Plastic People of the Universe its name. Not bad for a guy whose best-remembered tunes include "Don't Eat the Yellow Snow" and "Valley Girl."
Zappa was born in Baltimore in 1940 but mostly grew up in Southern California. As he emerges in Barry Miles' new biography, Zappa (Grove Press), he was a mess of contradictions that illuminate tensions at the heart not simply of the counterculture but of the larger mainstream society it reflected. It's easy to see in Zappa the push and pull between the traditional and the new, the commercial and the aesthetic, the bourgeois and the bohemian, that suffused postwar America.
A devotee of the sexual revolution, he remained in many ways an unreconstructed, 1950s male chauvinist pig. Located at the center of drug culture in the '60s and '70s, he loathed drugs and had little respect for even casual users. Though a rock star, he found most rock music contemptible and really wanted to be a jazz and symphonic composer. A demanding bandleader who insisted on a high level of professionalism, he rarely missed an opportunity to screw mates out of touring money or royalties.
Free expression remained the one unambiguous issue in Zappa's life. In 1965, while running a failing recording studio in Cucamonga, California, Zappa agreed to produce a pornographic audio tape for an undercover cop. At the trial, the tape's stagey antics reduced the judge to laughter, but Zappa was found guilty and ended up spending 10 days in jail, an experience, Miles writes, that changed Zappa forever: "By the time he got out, he no longer believed anything the authorities had ever told him. Everything he had been taught at school about the American Way of Life was a lie….[He would make] America see itself as it really was: phoney, mendacious, shallow, and ugly."
Miles reads Zappa's life as an attempt to follow through on that thought. The first Mothers of Invention record, considered by many the first double LP and concept album, Freak Out!, challenged listeners with its length, exotic rhythms and lyrics, and album sleeve exhortations to cast "off outmoded and restricting standards of thinking, dress and social etiquette."
Zappa would do something similar with his entire discography, releasing highly personal records that harked back to the doo-wop he loved in the '50s, say, and then offering up elaborate symphonic efforts, or jazz-infused sets that mostly had the effect of alienating whatever remained of his audience.
That career arc certainly calls to mind Herman Melville, who lost his public once he stopped writing traditional seafaring yarns and started cranking out strange novels such as Moby-Dick. By the end of his life, Melville was so alienated from American culture that his death was barely noticed.
Zappa fared much better, in part because of one final kink in his life: Though he railed against consumer culture in a glib, rock-star way, he was from the beginning a sharp businessman who knew that controlling the means of reproduction–including running his own record labels and retaining control of his copyrights–was central to his aesthetic and economic independence. In the '80s, he was able to sell his back catalog for $22 million, a tidy sum that made him rich even as it helped to bankrupt the purchaser, Rykodisc.
The rock star as entrepreneur: That may be Frank Zappa's most interesting legacy.?